Keratins K5 and K14 form the extensive intermediate filament network of mitotically active basal cells in all stratified epithelia. We have explored the regulatory mechanisms governing cell-type-specific and differentiation stage-specific expression of the human K5 gene in transiently transfected keratinocytes in vitro and in transgenic mice in vivo. Six thousand base pairs of 5' upstream K5 sequence directed proper basal cell-specific expression in all stratified epithelia. Surprisingly, as few as 90 bp of the K5 promoter still directed expression to stratified epithelia, with expression predominantly in epidermis, hair follicles, and tongue. Despite keratinocyte-preferred expression, the truncated K5 promoter displayed departures from basal to suprabasal expression in epidermis and from outer root sheath to inner root sheath expression in the follicle, with some regional variations in expression as well. To begin to elucidate the molecular controls underlying the keratinocyte specificity of the truncated promoter, we examined protein-DNA interactions within this region. A number of keratinocyte nuclear proteins bind to a K5 gene segment extending from -90 to +32 bp and are functionally involved in transcriptional regulation in vitro. Interestingly, several of these factors are common to both the K5 and K14 promoters, although they appear to be distinct from those previously implicated in keratinocyte specificity. Mutagenesis studies indicate that factors binding in the vicinity of the TATA box and transcription initiation are responsible for the cell type specificity of the truncated K5 promoter.